Jane Bradley: Time to change boring syllabuses

I HATE To Kill a Mockingbird, admits Jane Bradley

Michael Gove has left To Kill A Mockingbird off its draft English Literature syllabus. Picture: PA
Michael Gove has left To Kill A Mockingbird off its draft English Literature syllabus. Picture: PA

Controversial Westminster Education Secretary Michael Gove and I are the only two people on this planet not to proclaim to love this text more than life itself.

To be fair, my dislike of this classic work came when, as a 15-year-old, I was forced to read the wretched thing on loop for six months solid. Anyone would feel the same.

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The English teacher at my comprehensive school in England had gone on long-term sick leave a few weeks into my exam year and, instead of hiring someone new to take his place, we had a succession of stand-in teachers who were no more than glorified babysitters.

“Read your To Kill a Mockingbird”, the bored French/history/PE teacher would say as he or she settled into the chair at the front of the classroom with a copy of Heat magazine inside a ring-binder.

I knew that book off by heart by the end of that year. With no smart phones to fiddle with, there was nothing to do but entertain ourselves with the antics of Scout and her family. Again. And again. And again.

I think I once calculated that I had read the damn thing 43 times.

What surprised me last week, when the English media all voiced such outrage that Harper Lee’s only novel was to be dropped from exam syllabuses south of the Border, was that it was actually still on the required reading list at all. I took my exams in 1996 – surely someone must have updated the selection since then?

Boredom with this novel drove me to hate it. Thankfully it didn’t mar my overall enjoyment of English literature – I ended up studying the subject at university – but it was no thanks to that few months of Mockingbird overkill.

But surely the poor teachers teaching the same books year after year must have been as bored with it as I was?

In Scotland, Harper Lee’s only novel has also been used as a set text for many years – but a new prescriptive list, issued by the Scottish Qualifications Authority, does not include it at either Nat­ional 5 or Higher level – although the list is set to be reviewed every three years. Thank goodness.

My love for English literature was rekindled at sixth form, where I studied for an A-level in the subject.

There, I was taught by an eccentric teacher close to retirement age, with more than a whiff of The History Boys’ Hector about him, called George. He had a surname, but no-one used it.

He often held lessons in local coffee shops, buying a round of cappuccinos, where he would excitedly preach his thoughts on King Lear, or Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II, or his pet topic – one that was not even on the exam syllabus – the works of Harold Pinter.

We read The Caretaker with as much care as we did the set texts. In addition to managing to fit in the prescribed syllabus, George managed to pass on his passion for the subject as a whole.

Four years later, I chose to write my university dissertation on Pinter’s plays – that seed of inspiration having carried me right through university to my final year.

When I re-read King Lear in the second year of my degree course, it was George’s voice I could hear in my head, booming the lines. It wasn’t boring to study this play for a second time – it had been so well brought to life on my first reading.

The new guidelines include one play by Shakespeare; at least one 19th-century novel; a selection of poetry since 1789, including “representative Romantic poetry and fiction or drama from the British Isles from 1914 onwards”. Not a bad selection.

Critics have claimed that Aberdeen-schooled Gove’s regulations sound “like a 1940s syllabus” and bemoaned the lack of scope for work by American authors – but perhaps arguably that is better than a 1990s syllabus: at least for the poor people who have had to teach the same monotonous texts for the past 20-odd years.

So rather than mourning the authors the syllabus has lost during this shake-up, teachers and students alike should celebrate the ones that they will now be able to teach.

Hopefully the chance to do something different, albeit not to everyone’s tastes, will inspire the jaded teachers to inspire the pupils – and make English interesting again. And let’s hope, for the sake of teachers north of the Border, that the three-yearly review of their own set list is just as dramatic.